A Language That Built A Nation

Given Indonesia's complex plurality, it did well to choose Bahasa Indonesia, a simple and flexible tongue, as the official language even though it was not spoken by the majority of its citizens

Posted on 09/18/13
By Pallavi Aiyar | Via The Hindu
(Photo by J.P. Esperança, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by J.P. Esperança, Creative Commons License)

For newly independent nations, the choice of an official, national language was crucial, and often controversial, made especially so in the context of polyphonic and geographically diverse countries like China, India, and Indonesia.

In China, the Communist Party, opted for Putonghua, or Mandarin, the language of the capital, Beijing. In India, the initial intention of the postcolonial state — to adopt Hindi as the national language — was abandoned, and instead a plurality of languages were granted recognition.

The divergent linguistic paths followed by China and India can be explained in part by the fact that the majority of Chinese languages, unlike their Indian counterparts, are united by a common writing system, making the imposition of a single language for all China more palatable.

But the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia, an agglomeration of over 17,000 islands, which are home to some 700 languages, many of which do not share scripts or linguistic roots, is more directly comparable to India. However, Indonesia too, chose to adopt a single national language: Bahasa Indonesia.


The idea that a “nation” requires a national language to act as a social glue is hardly uncommon, but what makes Bahasa Indonesia noteworthy is that it was neither the language of the majority of Indonesian citizens, nor of its political elite. Those labels belonged to Javanese, a language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island and the center of gravity of its nationalist movement.

The Republic of Indonesia consequently made an unusual decision when it bypassed its majority language, Javanese, in favor of a variety of Malay, whose standardized form was dubbed Bahasa Indonesia or the language of Indonesia. The many Javanese nationalists involved in the discussions at the time not only acquiesced but actively advocated Bahasa Indonesia as the logical choice for a national language.

Goenawan Mohamad, the grand old man of Indonesian journalism and one of the country’s leading poets, explains that Malay had functioned as a lingua franca across the archipelago for centuries. By the time it was officially adopted by the nationalist movement in 1928, it had already emerged as a rallying symbol of resistance to colonial politics. “Bahasa Indonesia was intertwined with national identity from early on in the nationalist struggle,” Goenawan says.


Malay’s role in Indonesian nationalism evolved in part due the absence of a Dutch equivalent to the British Macaulay. Under the Dutch colonial administration, “native” Indonesians were discouraged from learning Dutch, in keeping with an imperialist strategy that sought to maintain a social distance between the rulers and the populace. Unlike English in India, the colonial language of Dutch was not of much use in enabling nationalist consciousness in Indonesia. Malay, on the other hand, had long been used by traders across the South East Asian region, as the language of communication.

Indonesian nationalists were keenly aware of the need to avoid conflating nationalism with any single ethnicity or religion, given the complex plurality that they were attempting to weave into a coherent unity. They chose therefore to use language as the primary symbol of their nation building efforts.


Goenawan, explains that choosing Javanese as a national language would have signaled that Indonesia was Java, defeating the aims of nationalism. Javanese was moreover an ancient and hierarchic language that was difficult to adapt to modern ways of thinking. In Javanese, the speaker must use forms of address that identifies her social ranking in relation to the person being addressed. It is deeply imbued with feudal terminology and was consequently not suited to express ideas of liberty and equality.

Bahasa Indonesia is conversely so simple and flexible a language that some have accused it of being an invented tongue. This is a misunderstanding. The language is not invented as much as having been constantly enriched by its own history, soaking up loan words from divergent cultural milieu.

Traces of the influence of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that dominated the region for hundreds of years, of Arab and Indian Muslim traders, Portuguese and Dutch colonialists, can all be found in the Bahasa (itself derived from the Sanskrit word bhasha or language) Indonesia vocabulary. Its amalgamation of words, borrowed from Sanskrit, Javanese, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English, is synthesized with a no-fuss grammar, and written in the Roman script.

The thinking of Indonesian nationalists seems to have been right on the money. Today, just as Bollywood and cricket are often believed to hold India together, it is Bahasa Indonesia that is most often cited as the cement binding Indonesia’s diverse peoples. But despite the fact that it is the language of government bureaucracy, schools and the media, only around 20 million, out of 240 million, Indonesians speak it as a first language.

Engineering a minority language into the national language has brought about a strange dichotomy between the spoken and written word. When they write, Indonesians do so almost exclusively in Bahasa Indonesia. There hasn’t been a daily newspaper in Javanese, for example, for decades. And the literature that they produce is also invariably in Indonesian.


Some blame this phenomenon for the fact that Indonesian literature remains somewhat underdeveloped, and has failed to match the international success of its Indian, or even Chinese, equivalents. “People do not write in their own languages here, which reduces those languages to oral status. And orality is ultimately shallow,” says John McGlynn, chairman of the Lontar Foundation an organization that works to promote and translate Indonesian literature.

Moreover, in the push to convert the country to Bahasa Indonesia several other indigenous languages have come to be threatened. The Javanese script is one such casualty, but far from the only one. In fact one of every four Indonesian languages is endangered.

Regardless, the writer Goenawan echoes what is a common sentiment in Indonesia when he concludes: “We are very, very, lucky to have Bahasa Indonesia. Otherwise we could not have survived. There would be no Indonesia without Indonesian.”

This article first appeared in the leading Indian daily The Hindu. Click here to go to the original

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